The internet is still in trouble, and now we know how it’s going to get worse.
T-Mobile has just announced "Binge On," a deal that gives customers unlimited access to Netflix, HBO Go, ESPN, Showtime, and video from most other huge media brands (but not YouTube!). It’s just like T-Mobile’s "Music Freedom" promotion, which gives customers unlimited high-speed data, as long as they’re listening to music from Spotify, Google Play Music, or one of T-Mobile’s other partners. It sounds like a sweet deal, and many customers will benefit! But it’s dangerous for the internet. When John Herrman writes that the next internet is TV — and you should believe him — this is part of how we get there. You know that viral picture that shows ISP internet bundles being sold as cable packages? That’s basically what’s happening here, except it’s more difficult to stop because, as the FCC might say, there’s "no obvious consumer harm" in giving people free stuff.
Of course, "free" isn’t really free, is it? This scheme is called "zero rating," and people like Susan Crawford have been warning us for a while about the risk it poses for the open internet. The only reason Binge On and Music Freedom sound like such a great pro-consumer deal is because the top four mobile ISPs — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile — have manufactured a market based completely on artificial scarcity. For years ISPs have clamored about a mobile data crunch that never materialized to justify data caps and outrageous prices, and wouldn’t you know it, now they have the solution. After years of aggressively trying to cull the herd of people who still remember the meaning of the word "unlimited," they’re rebranding it as something special and new. It’s, like, so un-carrier, man.
It's, like, so un-carrier, man
Even the landline ISPs are using the same spin now, because their siblings in the mobile business have perfected the art of squeezing customers for access to data. Comcast, likely terrified of losing margins in the TV business, is experimenting with ways to arbitrarily tax its broadband customers by offering them "unlimited" data plans. These caps have nothing to do with network congestion and everything to do with collecting as much rent as possible from tenants who often have no choice.
Verizon is so desperate to impart the logic of limitation that it now offers data plans in "small, medium, large, extra large, and extra-extra large" sizes. Each metaphor is more inane and unnecessary than the last, but it doesn’t really matter, because only a few companies really own the internet, and they succeed most when they cooperate without acting like they’re cooperating. It’s all as meaningless as the wireless puffery about who's "most reliable." The only reason T-Mobile's plan makes sense is because it exists in this world of hollow language and artificial constraints.
T-Mobile CEO John Legere today claimed that the mobile industry has collected $45 billion from customers who "overbought" data they didn’t need to use. He wants you to think T-Mobile is blowing this model of theft up, but it’s actually just playing the same game as everyone else. That doesn't mean T-Mobile is trying to gouge customers, but BingeOn is bad for different reasons. It's bad for net neutrality.
Binge On gives T-Mobile too much power
Binge On is bad because it gives T-Mobile too much power. It’s really that simple. And yes, it’s bad for net neutrality. If net neutrality has a core idea, it’s that regular people ought to be in charge of the internet — especially since the internet is mostly just people. That means companies like T-Mobile shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, even if customers appear to be winning in the short term. And there are definitely going to be losers. Legere insists that anybody who wants to be a part of Binge On can be, as long as they meet T-Mobile’s technical specifications. It’s not clear what those specifications are yet, though Legere used words like "optimized video" and "DVD quality or better." But that just sounds a lot like another type of managed network: cable television.
"This is not a net neutrality problem," Legere insisted on stage today at his company’s Uncarrier X event. "This is similar to Music Freedom. It’s free!" Free, free, free.
It's not clear if Legere understands what net neutrality means. To understand why free is a problem, we need to look at net neutrality in the context of the scarcity the ISPs have created. Consider T-Mobile and Sprint’s basic "unlimited" data plans: each technically include unlimited data, but only 1GB at 4G speeds. (T-Mobile announced today it had "amped" that minimum plan to 2GB.) As soon as you reach that cap, you’re kicked down to 2G speeds which are basically unusable for most things worth doing on the internet. When I was on T-Mobile’s 1GB plan before it announced Music Freedom, I nearly used my entire data allowance listening to Google Play Music on a one-way bus ride from New York to DC. But since T-Mobile now gives me all that data for "free," it’s a huge competitive advantage against T-Mobile’s rivals. It’s too bad the cost is competition at large.
Remember when Netflix accused Comcast and other ISPs of holding their customers hostage for payment? Netflix paid up, and depending on who you ask, it looks like the ISPs won big time. But Netflix also won! Despite arguments that Netflix was an underdog, it’s doing huge business, and it’s going to be fine. Netflix is not the problem — it’s even going to enjoy unlimited access to customers as part of Binge On, along with all the other big media brands that were called out by name today at T-Mobile's event. It’s the next Netflix that’s going to suffer. Or maybe even just the next website. Have you noticed that all these zero-rating programs privilege video and sound? What about everything else? The network isn't open if this kind of discrimination exists.
One of the worst possible worlds for the internet is one in which suits at companies like Comcast or T-Mobile have to meet in a boardroom before you’re allowed to experience something without limits. That future looks more and more likely as media companies, technology companies, and telecommunications companies become more tightly integrated in complicated layers of cartel-style ownership — the same way the TV business has operated for decades.
John Legere is doing the same thing everyone else is doing
So Binge On is a bad idea. It gives T-Mobile too much power in deciding winners and losers on the internet, and it gives other ISPs incentive to adopt similar measures to stay competitive. Worse, its spin as a pro-consumer benefit obscures the manipulation of the broadband market that’s happening right under our noses. John Legere even breathlessly talked trash about Verizon "curating" what people should watch under Go90, even though he’s basically doing the same thing with a different name.
It’s the FCC’s job to scrutinize Binge On and other zero-rating services, but the agency hasn’t done anything about it yet. When the FCC’s new net neutrality rules debuted this year, the Music Freedom plan was called a "lesser concern" because it posed no obvious harm to customers. But the harm is obvious — it transfers power from consumers and small companies to gatekeepers.
Next time you see a gold-plated Monster cable at Best Buy, remember that we’re living in a new Gilded Age whose stark inequalities are often masked by corporate spin and demagoguery. If there’s one thing you need to know to understand the shape of things to come — and that definitely includes the internet — it’s that the rich are getting richer and more powerful, and fast. There’s no conspiracy theory here, just hard data about who owns what. The thing we conveniently call the internet, which is really just varying combinations of you, and me, and the phones and wires and media that are all connected by them, are owned and operated by very few people. Those people are going to keep making a lot of decisions for you, both because they can and because they think they know best. And they’re going to try to sell you on the idea that it’s good for you.
John Legere loves to brag about how much he’s disrupting the industry. "Dumb and dumber are really gonna lose their shit over this one," Legere said today, talking about AT&T and Verizon. "The other guys can’t keep up." In this case, we really hope the other guys don’t keep up. These bad ideas should die at T-Mobile before they turn the internet into just another zone of total corporate control.
The truly simple solution is to just offer unlimited data access for everything. But maybe T-Mobile is content to just keep playing the barking dog in AT&T and Verizon's backyard.